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5 Steps To Get Started With International SEO


At this point, we all know how perilous it can be to ignore international markets, no matter what country you’re based it. While English is the predominant language on the web, the fact is that by focusing only on the English-speaking world, you’re losing out on billions of potential customers.

Only 12% of the world speaks English, and only 10% of internet users are from the U.S. That means that if you’re not focused on international countries or languages, you’re ignoring 90% of the world’s population. Imagine if you could reach that 90% — how fast would you grow? How much money would you make? The answer is, likely, a lot.

While there are many ways to reach international markets, one of the easiest ways to get started is to look at international SEO. SEO seems daunting to many, but the truth is, the basics are easy, no matter what language you’re focusing on.

As Eli Schwartz from SurveyMonkey (who have killed it internationally) says, international SEO is not that hard. Here are five best practices to getting started in international SEO.

1. Do you need international SEO?

Many people skip this step, but when you’re a small company, you need to figure out if it’s worth the time and effort. You may not be ready, and that’s okay. Here are a few ways to figure that out:

2. Do some keyword research — the right way

When people set out to do international keyword research, they often make a mistake right off the bat: ignoring search engines that aren’t Google. In the English-speaking world, it’s easy to forget (or just not know) that there are other search engines out there.

The biggest are Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia, both in countries where people greatly prefer to interact with the web in their native language. It follows, then, that they probably aren’t using Google.

Baidu and Yandex are the biggest, but there are more:

Keyword research is harder in other languages than in English
Google is still the biggest search engine out there, and it’s no surprise that Google is optimized for English. Their algorithm is more advanced in English than for any other language. For example, think of spelling errors you’ve made in English: Google automatically corrects it. You’ve probably also seen instances where Google pulls up results with synonyms to what you searched. Or they suggest a different phrase that might offer better results.

This doesn’t happen in other languages. As a result, you need to get your keywords right, or all your effort will be for nothing. Even special characters like umlauts, tildes, and accents can completely change the search results, whereas in English, Google just knows what you’re talking about.get started international SEO

It’s also crucial to find words that native speakers actually use. Google Translate or your high school education of Spanish won’t help you here — many direct translations are too formal, archaic, or just downright weird (or worse, offensive!).

We’ve all seen this with those translation fail memes. While these types of fails can be funny, it doesn’t help you with your marketing. Using a translation service like Unbabel can help connect you with native speakers who know the right way to reach your target audience.

3. Don’t make assumptions

It should go without saying that stereotypes aren’t going to help you here. After all, you have no proof that they are true, and if you don’t know much about the country you’re looking to target, working on any assumptions isn’t going to get you very far. Generalizing in general is a great way for your marketing to not work at all, and it’s even worse when trying to reach international markets.

If you’re putting in the effort to internationalize, you absolutely need to take the time to understand the culture. The types of marketing campaigns that work in your home market may not work at all in other places. Words or phrases that make sense in one dialect of Spanish may be completely offensive in another (ask any Latin American who has traveled and they will have a long list of terms that are just ridiculous in another dialect).

Even images and colors can have an effect that’s way different from what you intended. While the color red represents anger and intensity in the U.S., in China it represents good luck and happiness. There’s a lot of research out there about the psychology in colors, but remember that this won’t apply worldwide. Symbols and images can have vastly different meanings, too. In Japan, a black cat is good luck, while in the U.S., it represents bad luck.

Basically, the key here is to do your research. It may seem time consuming, but the alternative is wasting tons of time and money on SEO and other campaigns that flop, or worse, damage your company’s reputation.

4. Optimize your website

While SEO can get really technical, most people shouldn’t worry about that, especially when just starting out. Some simple optimization will go a long way.

A good practice is to locate a visitor by their IP, and suggest the appropriate language (you could just direct them to the URL automatically, but it’s more considerate to make a suggestion). You don’t want a user stuck in a language they don’t know. In addition, make sure there is a visible menu showing all the languages you offer, so people can easily switch.

As for how you organize these different languages, you’ll want to set up individual URLs for the countries or languages you’re targeting. Sub-categories make it easy for a search engine to index your site, and also keep it simple for your visitors.

Again, this can get technical, but you don’t need to go there to get started with your international SEO. But, if you want more detail, here is some information to get you started, and also this part of an infographic from the Moz blog lays it out clearly:

international SEO best practices

5. Translate your content!

Well, this step should be obvious. After all, 73% of people are more likely to buy something if the site is in their native language. Doing international SEO and not translating your content is a complete waste of time, and you will fail spectacularly.

But don’t let this overwhelm you — offering localized content is easier than it sounds. First, translate your existing content across your site. That doesn’t just mean your blog and the rest of your content marketing: it means your navigation, your user reviews and testimonials, your user guides, your FAQs, and everything in between. Using a translation service like Unbabel can make this dead simple, and unlike hiring a freelance translator, it’s affordable — and fast.

Next, you want to write new content focused on your target market. Again, don’t make assumptions. Your customers in other countries may not get the same value out of your content as the English-speaking world does. If you can talk to any prospective and current in your target countries, absolutely do that.

You can also look at Google Trends and trending topics on Twitter to see what people are talking about (refer to your keyword research to get started). You can do topical content based on current events, or focus on more classic content that’s helpful for people — this will largely depend on your product and what you think your target market will like.

Writing content in new languages is huge, but it’ll only have an effect if people are actually reading it. Some people suggest teaming up with influencers who can help you spread it (and of course, a best practice for that is to write about these influencers so that you’re providing them value in return for them sharing your content). Interact with the community in your target language, and also think about providing customer support in a user’s native language, using something like Unbabel for Zendesk.


For any type of business, ignoring international SEO is a huge mistake. Only 30% of e-commerce is by American customers, and that number is shrinking. Do you really want to miss out on 70% of the world’s consumers?

It’s so easy to ignore, because SEO is often overwhelming to people. They get caught up in the technical side — but to get started with SEO, it’s pretty simple. Following the steps above will get you 80% of the way there.

If you’re thinking about expanding to international markets or localizing for your foreign customers, contact us and we’ll be happy to help.

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